Egberto Gismonti: Sertões Veredas

When jazz musicians compose orchestral works, so many things can go wrong. Often the artist's distinctive personality disappears in the translation into complex scores; or the influence of models from classical music overwhelms the jazz ingredients; or—perhaps the most common problem—the rhythmic vitality, so essential to jazz music, is missing in action, either because it never made its way into the notation or due to the inherent difficulty in getting symphonic players to assimilate a groove outside their previous experience. "Symphonic jazz" may not be a oxymoron, but its success stories are as rare as steak tartare.

But Egberto Gismonti's Sertões Veredas avoids the pitfalls, and emerges as a masterpiece of classical-jazz cross-fertilization. I'm not sure if this has any connection to Gismonti's subtitle—a "Tribute to Miscegenation"—but clearly the music itself has a lineage that spans several continents. This artist has shown his versatility in past outings, and I still can't decide whether I admire Gismonti more as a guitarist or as a pianist. With both instruments, he has developed an exciting, highly personal style—furthered by his exceptional skills as a composer. His talents are equally evident in this massive work, comprising seven movements and some seventy minutes of music. It is to Gismonti's credit that he has been able to translate so much of the creativity and visceral energy of his solo and combo jazz performances into this string orchestra work, where he sits on the sidelines, not even showing up as guest soloist or conductor. The mood shifts, the textures, the counterpoint . . . indeed, the sheer confidence and scope of this piece demand respect.

Even so, it will be hard for fans to "place" this work in the context of a career that is already so broad. I sometimes wonder why Gismonti's name doesn't show up more prominently in the various polls and nominee lists when awards are distributed. Certainly his versatility, which refuses to be pinned down to a single instrument or style, contributes to this sad state of affairs. Sertões Veredas will not make it any easier for those who need a pigeonhole in order to appreciate an artist. Yet for those who value music for its vitality and not its kowtowing to the accepted categories, the arrival of this recording is an event to celebrate.

October 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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CU: Vira Lata

It's been a comedown for CU. Her last CD enjoyed a cross-promotion with a Starbucks coffee bean sub-brand, and her visage with its "come hither" glance showed up on cardboard displays in ten thousand stores. Not this time. But her music is still heavily caffeinated, even if it no longer arrives with your morning java. Here she is joined by Luiz Melodia, a singer whose work I first encountered during a visit to Rio some years back, but whose rich baritone is not as well known as it should be outside of the region. Imagine a Brazilian Johnny Hartman or Billy Eckstine, and you will get some sense of his very appealing approach. The horn arrangements here are pop-oriented, and the rhythm section is more subdued than one normally hears with CU. But the vocals are first-rate and the interplay between the two singers makes one wish that Melodia (what a perfect name for this artist!) showed up elsewhere on this CD, and not just this track. And while we are talking about names, when will CU's handlers agree on the spelling of hers? Half the press material has the 'U' capitalized and the rest lower case. With just three letters, it should be possible to reach a consensus, huh? There's no confusion about the music, however, and this artist looks like she has the staying power to build a significant global following.

October 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Benjamim Taubkin: Baianinho

Srgio Rezes Latin festive, second-line pulse provides the bedrock for this Latin-flavored tune that conjures up New Orleans as much as it does Rio de Janeiro. Baianinho is keyed by an eminently hummable Nascimento-led percussive theme thats played near the beginning and again at the end. In between, the composition opens up wide, allowing both the trumpet and Taubkins piano go down paths of casual exploration. Props also go to the engineering effort of a live-in-the-studio recording that picks up the nuances of the percussion, horn and piano, enabling each player to find his own voice without having to rise above the other voices.

Ultimately, though, Baianinho succeeds in its balance of moods: that of being both a jubilant and a breezy song.

September 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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João Gilberto: S'Wonderful

There were many reasons why this track shouldn't work. João Gilberto abandons Portuguese to sing in English. He switches from Jobim for a Gershwin song from 1927. And he buries his distinctive guitar work in the sometimes saccharine orchestral colorings of Mr. Claus Ogerman, a man who never saw a lingering major seventh chord he didn't like. The result should have been one more forgettable attempt to dilute Brazilian music for mass consumption by the chardonnay and brie set in the US. But someone forgot to tell Gilberto that he was supposed to imitate Carmen Miranda and ham it up for the Yanks. As a result, he leaves the antioxidant-enriched headgear behind, and sings this song with a delicacy and confessional honesty that are deeply touching. S'marvelous? You bet! But João, I'll tell it to you straight: your six strings are the only ones you need to bring to the next session.

August 07, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stan Getz (with João Gilberto): Desafinado

Getz's 1962 recording of this composition set the bossa nova craze in motion. But I prefer this 1964 version, hands down, with its authentic Brazilian rhythm section. Authentic? Perhaps historic is a better adjective. João Gilberto invented the bossa beat, and remains its greatest exponent even after a million other guitarists have tinkered with, adapted and outright stolen his stuff. And what could be better than having the composer on piano?

Getz, for his part, makes his contribution sound so free and easy, that it's easy to under-estimate his artistry; even he made light of his achievement—introducing this song in concert as "Dis Here Finado" (an coy allusion to the funky hard bop tunes "Dat Dere" and "Dis Here"), or joking that it was the tune that would put his children through college. But can you imagine another jazz tenorist of the era who could have played this music with such perfect sensitivity to its nuances and inner emotional life? Let 'Trane have his "Giant Steps" and Rollins his late night bridge heroics; ah, but beachfront property never loses it value, and there is a stretch of it down Copacabana and Ipanema way that Getz will always own.

August 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Milton Nascimento: Nozani Na

Deep in the traditions of African music—both homegrown and transplanted to the Americas—is the implicit assumption that sound trumps theory. Artists as different as John Lee Hooker, King Oliver, Bob Marley and Ornette Coleman remind us there is a certain level of expression that cannot be fully captured in the mathematical models of music-making that we inherited from Pythagoras and the Greeks. This is my own personal interpretation of harmolodics, which I view as an anti-theory of sound creation, one all the more valuable for its unwillingness to be reduced to rules.

Which brings us to Milton Nascimento, who is one of the most subversive singer-songwriters of modern times. "Nozani Na" is a traditional song from the Mato Grosso, best known for its adaptation by Hector Villa-Lobos. But compare Nascimento's version with the classical composer's and get a lesson in the primacy of sound over notes, aural fluency as a deeper intuiting of music than the printed score. Accompanied solely by percussion and guitar, Nascimento and singer-ethnomusicologist Marlui Miranda (who spent 17 years researching Amazonian music) engage in a luminous duet. If you are a seeker after music that cuts through the noise, and resists reduction to the formulaic, this is a track you need to hear.

August 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Milton Nascimento: Nos Bailes da Vida

Most of this live album is weighed down by tepid orchestral arrangements. But on "Nos Bailes da Vida," Nascimento decides that a 39-piece band isn't big enough for him, and enlists the enthusiastic São Paulo audience to be his accompanists. This artist's performances have always struck me with their charismatic (in the old, sociological sense of the word) and quasi-ritualistic quality—sometimes made explicit, but usually just felt behind the surface of the music. This radiant, transcendent side of Nascimento comes to the fore on this track, and the sing-song quality of the melody adds to the effect. Imagine a soundspace that serves as meeting ground between an anthem for the African diaspora and nursery lullaby for a toddler, and you will get some idea of the territory Nascimento is staking out here. An uplifting performance!

August 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Milton Nascimento (with Herbie Hancock & Pat Metheny): Cantaloupe Island

Milton Nascimento and Herbie Hancock have a musical relationship that dates back to the Brazilian star's first US album from 1969, while their later collaboration on "San Vincente," from the 1989 Mlitons CD resulted in a standout track in the career of both artists. Here Nascimento covers a Hancock jazz standard, the hard bop classic "Cantaloupe Island," and invites the composer and Pat Metheny to join him in the studio. Metheny is very comfortable in this setting—indeed the "even eights" sound of Nascimento's Clube da Esquina era recordings exerted a noticeable influence on Pat's own work. Hancock lays back at first, but before the second chorus arrives, he is driving the rhythm. He digs into his personal Blue-Note-meets-Brazil bag that I have heard him use in these types of situations; it is very effective. Even without a drummer, there is hardly enough room for Metheny, but he floats and flutters, and when his solo comes, he digs in with a very earthy improvisation. Nascimento needs no lyrics to express his soulfulness—this track will show how much Mr. McFerrin learned from the Brazilian master. Milton's voice is angelic and devilish at the same time. This song has inspired some hot renditions, including Hancock's simmering original and Us3's manipulation of the same. But Nascimento has added another must-hear version to the list.

August 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Milton Nascimento: Pão e Água

The two Clube da Esquina double albums stand out as defining statements of Milton Nascimento's aesthetic vision, and remain key milestones in Brazilian post-bossa-nova popular music. Nascimento here is completely liberated from the previous efforts to package his music for crossover success. Instead he embraces a raw, under-produced sound, and the performances seem aimed at personal transcendence rather than radio airplay. As a result this music sounds very fresh and immediate a generation after it was recorded. "Pão e Água" features some of the finest rhythm section work you will hear on any popular recording from this era. Motown fans talk about the Funk Brothers, but the Clube de Esquina gang deserve the same degree of reverence. Nascimento is inspired, his vocal an invocation of higher powers. A glorious moment in Brazilian music—it's a shame this recording is still so little known outside of Brazil, and available in the US only as an expensive import.

August 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Milton Nascimento: Courage

"Although Nascimento speaks little English," Ralph Gleason writes in the liner notes to this release, "he sings it with assurance and with articulation." In truth, the heavy production hand of Creed Taylor is felt at every point on this project, and the decision to have Nascimento sing in English on this US debut was just one more sign of how this artist was being groomed for crossover success on the pop charts. Taylor had been a behind-the-scenes player in the bossa nova fad, and no doubt saw Nascimento as Brazil's next great musical export. So we get the slick arrangements with a very 1960s-AM-radio flavor, and a commercial orientation to every aspect of the production. Yet there is something powerful here that seems to subvert the pop sensibility, a deep and almost spiritually charged vocal from Nascimento that cuts through the glittery trappings and grabs the listener's attention. His guitar is not credited on the liner notes, but it can be heard in the background anchoring the track. This artist soon switched directions, but this recording remains essential listening for anyone who wants to understand the evolution of Nascimento's career. And, because of his against-the-grain performance, this track has aged much better than your typical late-60s crossover fare.

July 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stan Getz & João Gilberto: Doralice

While familiar, "Doralice" still sounds fresh today. This version, recorded for the seminal jazz album Getz/Gilberto, features straight ahead guitar chords, an understated atmosphere, and warmth that sounds carefully plotted out.

The musicians create a lot of space and their contributions remain equally important to the mix. Once Stan Getz's no-frills sax solo winds down, it trades places with Gilberto's vocals, and both sing out in a similar manner. Instruments are panned hard left and right, and the track was rendered in the best light possible due to the multifaceted talents of each participant. It is a session of international repute, and you are immediately aware of its importance from the moment the cut kicks in because of the familiarity of the players with each other's skills.

Even if you do not understand a word of Spanish, you will feel as if you are able to follow the lyrics and message, and the warm, romantic sensitivity that the players convey is the reason for the track's approachability. It is a standout cut on one of the most important Latin jazz albums of all time, and it effectively symbolizes what else occurs within the grooves of the Stone Flower CD.

July 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Antonio Carlos Jobim: God and the Devil in the Land of the Sun

Atypical experimentalism rules Antonio Carlos Jobim's "God and the Devil in the Land of the Sun." The hippie-minded expansiveness mirrors most of the commercial music of the period and even some of the less commercial ruminations by cult artists like Soft Machine.

While Jobim is better known as a purveyor of Bossa Nova, this track could easily be mistaken for either Jefferson Airplane's "Chushingura" (from Crown of Creation) or anything by saxophonist Rashaan Roland Kirk, for there isn't a Brazilian bone in this composition's body. Easily classified as avant-garde, the tune finds some big-band flavor in its instrumental choices that include a clarinet that sounds more indebted to John Coltrane than Benny Goodman. Ravi Shankar-like sitar swirls push the cut in the direction of Indian raga, while the tune is completely psychedelicized in a stereotypical fashion that typifies most of what was released in the jazz world immediately following Miles Davis' Bitches Brew.

At best, the track expands Jobim's musical palette slightly, but it will be fairly obvious to anyone that the spiritual mantra sounds much less original than what the producers intended. This track ultimately struggles to develop an identity of its own, settling for a foray not into the land of the sun but into the finality of diminishing returns.

July 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Antonio Carlos Jobim: Andorinha

"Andorinha" sounds like most Jobim from the era, complete with a few added musical features. The electric keyboards are phased out so heavily for the first minute that it is tough to suss out exactly what is being played. However, trombonist Urbie Green appears amidst the lush density of the string section, and the electric piano, while distorted, plays some lovely romantic figures while expressing an interest in musical modernity.

The amount of gain on Jobim's keyboard sounds similar to what was used on the Herbie Hancock recording Crossings-meaning that the same industry standards sweeten this track that were prevalent throughout most music cut in 1970. The influence of albums such as Miles in the Sky and Files de Kilimanjaro dominates, and, even though this music is in no way as adventurous as what was laid down on those classic platters, the production choices prove that Jobim and his compatriots were, at least, digesting their contents.

Once the initial delay effects are spaced out somewhat, Green is allowed to chime in with his usual laid-backness. However, the track is lazily brought to a close, petering out in the second half. Given the crypticness of the initial portion, the tune falls short of its goal of bringing Bossa Nova to the moon.

July 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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Milton Nascimento: Ofetório

Quilombos were settlements by runaway Brazilian slaves and free-born natives of African origin. They first appeared in the first half of the sixteenth century, and the most famous group of quilombos, Palmares, lasted for almost a century as a self-sustaining political entity. Milton Nascimento celebrated the resilience and independence of these colonies in his mass Missa dos Quilombos, recorded in 1982. The combination of African-style percussion with liturgical singing is mesmerizing here—but this mixture eventually contributed to the work's prohibition by the Vatican, which had long battled against assimilation of Candomblé elements into Roman Catholic ritual. On this recording, however, Archbishop Hélder Câmara participates, and it is not hard to link Nascimento's composition with Câmara's liberation theology. The "Ofetório" is my favorite part of this vibrant work. The large chorus, which might weigh down a lesser rhythm section, makes the most of Nascimento's expansive melody. This piece is rarely heard yet, like Ellington's "Come Sunday," it is perfectly suited for a secularized and trimmed-down combo performance.

July 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sons Of Brazil: Bala Con Bala

As improbable as it may seem, there is a bona fide connection between these Kansas City players and the birthplace of the bossa nova and the samba. Guitarist Danny Embry used to play with Sergio Mendes; percussionist Doug Auwarter makes frequent trips to Brazil, where he performs and teaches. Those factors and the groups obvious dedication to the unique rhythms, textures and dynamics that are hallmarks of Brazilian music should sufficiently dispel any reservation on the part of Latin music aficionados.

There is plenty of ear-pleasing solo work in this piece and an interesting opening dialogue between the piano and guitar- but the main attraction of this lively samba is the authentic feel and pulse, which should have you dancing navel-to-navel in a heartbeat. Toto, were definitely not in Kansas, anymore.

July 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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